Ideal Catholicism

Brook Farm PhalansteryMany years ago, when I was a flaming heretic and was far from God and His Holy Church, I was at the same time a devoted idealist.  While attending Quaker meetings and studying Quaker writings, including the Journal of George Fox,  I even more immersed myself in Transcendentalism, the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Orestes Brownson, and so on.  Transcendentalism was a distinctly New England school of thought that rejected traditional western religion in preference for eastern religion.  It held a romanticized pantheistic view of nature, and practiced a simpler more organic manner of living.  It denied such Christian doctrines as preternatural evil and fallen nature, emphasized individual freedom and responsibility, and regarded every person as reformable through education and culture.  Transcendentalism was also intrinsically idealistic, in that it conceived of a relatively perfect society as attainable.  Given enough thought, experience, and experimentation with forms, humanity would ultimately resolve the problems it had created and at last raise a new Tower of Babel that would not collapse in a state of confusion.  In a word, Transcendentalism was utopian in spirit.

The Transcendentalists George and Sophia Ripley put their idealism to work with the founding, in 1941, of the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.   This farm was an attempt to establish a self-supporting utopian community whose life comprised a balance of work and culture.   It was founded on both Transcendentalist principles and the socialist theories of Charles Fourier.  A number of famous American literary figures either lived on, or regularly visited, Brook Farm.   Nathaniel Hawthorne joined the community at its beginning, but remained there for only six months, until he had realized that such a life was not conducive to writing.  His novel, The Blithedale Romance, is a hilariously sarcastic account of his less than ideal experiences living at this utopian experiment.

Brook Farm survived only until 1847 – a mere six years from its founding.  It was never financially stable, and after a period of moderate growth, was devastated by a fire, and later, by an outbreak of smallpox.  And that was the end of Brook Farm; reality was its end.  Apparently, there were elements within man and the world that made the utopian dream an impossible fantasy.  And yet, the fantasies of socialism continue even in our own day


Long ago, I abandoned the utopian hope.  It was not so much the story of Brook Farm that liberated me.  No, it was Gospel truth that set me free from such foolish vanity.  Holy Scripture, the theological riches of Sacred Tradition, and even daily experience have demonstrated to me the inescapable realities of fallen nature and preternatural evil.  Angelic and human sin are real, and everything that man does is directly impacted by them.  And the remedies to these are found, not in man, but in God alone.

Nevertheless, many people in the last two thousand years have turned to the Gospels as a basis for a sort of Christian utopianism.  Within limits, this can actually work, for the simple reason that such people have turned to God, rather than to human ingenuity.  Many holy individuals have established religious orders with constitutions or “rules” based entirely on Gospel principles.  And unlike those godless utopian experiments, these orders have endured for many centuries, successfully formed members in the life of communal charity and piety, and served as centers of learning and Catholic culture.  The Rule of Saint Benedict is, for example, both a spiritual classic and an extraordinarily successful example of such a constitution founded on the Gospel.  Fifteen hundred years later, the Benedictine order is still flourishing.

However, even the Holy Gospel is checked by a morbid reality.  Indeed, it is the very best manual on the inescapable dilemmas of reality, of the existence of fallen nature and preternatural evil, for it proposes the divinely established solution to both: the salvific intervention of Jesus Christ.   The problem is, the Holy Gospel is ultimately rejected – in part or in whole – by most persons and by many Christians.  Hence, even within the walls of a monastery, convent, or parish, the inability to govern all members and their activities by Gospel principles is a fact of daily life.  Tragically, relatively few souls adamantly strive for the perfection of Christian charity; few seek to acquire a deep knowledge and understanding of the ancient and perennial faith; and even fewer strive to share in the Church’s mission of spreading and defending the Catholic religion.  Most Catholics are content simply to know just a bit about their religion, to practice it on Sunday mornings, and to generally be “nice” people, according to the common definition of that adjective.  And if pressed to be a bit more pious, their response might be, “I’d rather be lukewarm than fanatical.”  As if those were the only two choices!

The truth is – and this is perfectly in accord with Our Lord’s warnings – religion is filled with persons who are only moderately religious, as well as many who are actually irreligious.  And living under a Gospel-based constitution of whatever form – whether in a monastery, convent, or parish – will do little to change the Church’s tepid religious climate.

If this is true in the case of insular Catholic communities, it is all the more true in the case of larger societies such as cities, counties, and countries where there are all sorts of persons with all sorts of beliefs and non-beliefs.  Such diverse communities should be governed by the natural law.  But the Gospel?  In my opinion, it’s simply impossible to govern them by the Gospel, for they have not individually embraced it.

I have arrived at this radical conclusion only after decades of religious searching, studying, reflecting, praying, and teaching.  The Holy Gospel is meant, not for the masses, but only for those persons who would freely and fully embrace it.  It was not given in order to form the constitutions of large communities; rather, it was given to the saints, to those who would repent, believe, be faithful, and by the grace merited upon the Cross by Jesus Christ, be saved.

Christ was not a utopian theorist establishing the basis for a new world government.  He testified before Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world, even if His Church – the beginning of that Kingdom – was first established in it.  His holy Gospel, in all its sacred glory, was intended by Christ to guide, not nations, but individuals and small communities – those who would respond to His call to come and follow Him into a life that this world would mock as absurd and reprehensible.

The Gospel should be offered to every human being.  It should be preached with power and persuasion in every nation and to every religion, philosophy, culture, and world view, to both Jew and gentile, and theist and atheist.  The mission of the Church is to draw into the Kingdom of God the elect, to fill that Kingdom with all who will be saved.  But only so many people will care to listen to the Church’s message.  Some will respond to the divine invitation, others will only appear to respond to it, and many will firmly reject it.  This was all foreseen and predicted by Christ.  One could even say that the mass rejection of the Gospel message is part and parcel of the Gospel message.  As Jesus warned,

“Now this is the judgment: The light has come into the world, yet men have loved the darkness rather than the light, for their works were evil” (Jn. 3:19).


Let me take this theme one step further.

It is reasonable for a Catholic to want to live in an ideal Catholic environment, to be surrounded by the blessed sights, sounds, and scents of the true faith, to hear the prayers of the Holy Sacrifice in the morning, the pealing of the Angelus bell at noon, the singing of psalms at evening prayer, and the chanting of the Salve Regina before retiring for the night.  It is understandable that he or she would like to be daily inspired and comforted by a rich Catholic culture, by Dante’s Divine Comedy, Chesterton’s essays, O’Connor’s short stories, Palestrina’s Mass settings, Frescobaldi’s organ works, and Gothic architecture.  It would be wonderful if the Church’s faith could be appreciated by all, so that these pious cultural treasures could be found and enjoyed wherever one wandered on God’s green earth.  But this requires a degree of acceptance of the Catholic Church and faith on the part of the world, and such an acceptance is a grave threat to the integrity of Catholicism.

The hard truth is that the Catholic religion is at its best when it is generally rejected, Catholics are at their best when they are generally persecuted, and the Church is purest, not when her leaders are adored by the world, but when they are generally despised.

I’m not implying that a brutal Islamic State is the cure to all that spiritually ails the Church.  I’m not suggesting that we Catholics must at all times be enduring an apocalyptic degree of persecution in order to be authentic.  I’m only pointing out the obvious – that the world is not the Catholic’s friend, and that the ideal Catholicism is the result of struggle

I do not want to live in a Catholic country, in a society and culture where the Church is empowered and privileged.  She is, due to the fallen nature of her clergy and laity, as easily corrupted as any merely human institution, and perhaps even more so.  And she can, in the worst of cases, degenerate into a truly satanic state, as can be realized by a brutally honest examination of the clerical sex scandals.  These were the result of weak men who were corrupted by a potent mixture of sexual deviancy, ecclesiastical authority, and the secular world’s adulterous embrace.  Perversity, power, and popularity brought down the Church, and it is a lesson we Catholics must never forget.  The world’s love is actually hatred.

Yes, we are every bit as vulnerable to the influences of evil as is the godless world, and perhaps even more so.  For more than any other people or institution on the earth, a preternatural adversary seeks to devour us as a roaring lion – morning, day, and night.  Therefore, we cannot afford to indulge in arrogant utopian fantasies.  We cannot hope to govern the world with the Gospel or convert the masses to the faith of the Saints.  We can just barely maintain the rudiments of the faith in our own little corner.  Even within the sanctuary of the Church, we must courageously recognize that, wherever the Holy Spirit is renounced, absolute power does and will corrupt absolutely.

The faithful are, and are meant to be, only the remnant of a remnant.